The West Highland Way Race – The Final Countdown

New post at The Running Bug, ‘The West Highland Way Race – The Final Countdown

Wanted: West Highland Way Race Support Crew. Must be prepared to give up an entire weekend, put up with interrupted sleep (at best), drive around the countryside and ensure that your runner is clothed, fed and constantly running/walking/shuffling/crawling forward. Basic first aid skills and thick skin may be required.

If I saw this advert I would personally think twice (at least!) about responding! Fortunately for me, my friends and family didn’t and, as a result, I have a great crew in place to help me on my way to trying to complete the 95 mile West Highland Way Race, my longest race to date by some 40 miles.

Essentially the object of the West Highland Way Race is simple. You start at Milngavie Railway Station (7miles north of Glasgow) at 1am on Saturday 23rd June 2012 & run/jog/walk to Fort William Leisure Centre by noon on the Sunday 24th June 2012, 35 hours to cover 95 miles including 14,760ft of ascent. (

There is less than 2 weeks to go now until the race and, due to an achilles niggle picked up at The Cateran Trail Ultramarathon, I have cut right back on the running these past few weeks. As a result, I should reach the start line well rested, an enforced taper of sorts!

Mrs Mac will be there to try and ensure that I don’t do myself too much damage! She will be joined by her aunt and uncle, Sandra and John Donnelly. The three of them will be in the motorhome that we have rented for the weekend and I hope that they enjoy the event as much as I will.

I am also fortunate to be joined by Ian Minty (known as ‘Minty’), who will be my pacer for the later stages of the event. I have known Minty for a short while now as a result of various training runs and ultramarathons. We ran almost all of the 2011 Cateran Trail Ultramarathon together, pulling each other along to the finish and it was this run in particular that cemented a great friendship.

I was delighted when Minty offered to run the last 45 miles (approx.) of the race with me, joining me at the earliest permitted opportunity for pacers on the race. Having ‘only’ run 55 miles before, I appreciate that the last 40 miles will be totally unknown territory and, as such, I am even more grateful to have Minty running alongside, keeping me upright and on track!

An email from Minty a few weeks back brought home the close proximity of the event. I can only really liken it to Christmas. There is this long, drawn out build up followed by a mad panic in the couple of weeks preceding the event and then, all too soon, it will be over for yet another year. Hopefully, come noon on the 24th June, I will be about to receive the best present that I could wish for – one of the prized finishers goblets and entry to The West Highland Way Race Family.

Minty’s email got me thinking. There were so many good questions. Things I had barely considered. I was in the frame of mind that I was going to turn up and run. End of story. The email was just the kick up the backside that I needed.

The email broached the idea of starting my taper, my plans for the day itself, consideration of where I should be at what time, how hard to push through the day, how hard I should ask my support team and support runner to push me, what goals and/or approaches are important to me, and, equally as relevant, what goals and/or approaches aren’t!

The email also mentioned the dreaded DNF (Did Not Finish) scenario. Under what circumstances would I accept a DNF? (fatigue? Injury?) Should the support team ever suggest a DNF? Should the support team try to put me off of a DNF if I am feeling low?

All good questions that got me thinking, and not before time. Minty’s aim was to best prepare for the race so that he could help steer me in the direction that I wanted to go, especially when my own mental faculties might be impaired through exhaustion and sleep deprivation.

All of these questions, and more importantly their answers, were equally relevant to my crew in the motorhome.

So, after considerable effort, I came up with a game plan for the day.

Barring serious injury, a DNF does not factor into my plans. I am, of course, saying this with no experience of how it feels to be at mile 80 with a further difficult 15 miles to go and suffering from aches, pains and sleep deprivation. In my head, I hope that I will be strong enough to follow this conviction! (I really hope this one doesn’t come back to haunt me!)

I have now prepared and sent a spreadsheet with estimated timings to my support crew. I have set myself gold, silver and bronze standards to aim for. Gold is anything under 28 hours. Silver is 28 to 32 hours, and Bronze is 32 hours to 35 hours. Anything over 35 hours is beyond the permitted completion time for the race and, as such, is outwith the ‘medals’.

I have also given some thought to food requirements. As with The Cateran, I am going with ‘real food’ but will have a small supply of gels just in case. I am planning on eating everything from potatoes, porridge and tomato soup to cheese and onion sandwiches and Jamaican Ginger Cake (the latter two were staples of my Cateran ‘diet’) and drinking everything from water with High 5 Zero hydration tablets to Coke, Coffee and Slimfast shakes.

The main aim of the day is simply to finish. It doesn’t have to be pretty – it will likely be anything but!

With a bit of luck the weather will be on our side. Last year I followed the race via Twitter while on holiday in Menorca. Back home it was torrential rain, bad enough for races of 13 hours, never mind 30 hours! The previous two years were very hot by all accounts. For me, something in between would be just perfect and hopefully would minimise the need to change kit too many times (Race regulations are that you must have 5 different sets of kit available).

The 230 runners who were originally allowed entry to the race have now dwindled to 180 approx as injury and other circumstances take their toll. I hope that everyone who makes it to the start line at Milngavie at 1 a.m. on Saturday 23rd June has a great weekend and that they all reach Fort William.

Hopefully the support crews and runners will also have a great weekend. By all accounts, there is a great camaraderie between the teams as they each help their runners to try and achieve their goal. Seeing your runner at his or her worst, battered, bruised and deprived of sleep can be tough on crews, often including loved ones. However, this will hopefully be balanced out by the fun of the day and, with a bit of luck, by the site of seeing their runner finally cross the line, whether it be in 15 hours 44 minutes (Course record set by Jez Bragg in 2006), in 34 hours 59 minutes, or anything in between!

Thanks again to everyone in my team. Your efforts are hugely appreciated. The West Highland Way Race has been a goal of mine for a while now and I am grateful of your help as I try to reach that goal. With a bit of luck I will not be moody/stroppy/quick tempered etc. etc. From the various podcasts and articles that I have listened to/read it is clear that runners may not always be at their nicest once the miles and hours start to take their toll. As such, I will get my thanks in now and apologise in advance for any of the above.

Finally, thanks in advance to the organisers and marshals, without whom the race would not be possible.

See you all in Fort William!


It’s All In The Eating

New post at The Running Bug, ‘It’s All In The Eating‘.

It has been two days now since my second Cateran Trail Ultramarathon and I am feeling more than a touch battered!

I had an excellent day. The race organisation was superb and the marshals were on top form as always. John Stanton, author and founder of Canada’s Running Room recently tweeted “Race volunteers – some of the nicest people you have never met” and this is definitely an apt description. Having said that, I did know a few of the marshals and I am starting to recognise quite a few more of them from all of the various ultras that I have run of late. A huge thanks to them all – your positivity and helpfulness certainly played its part in getting the runners to the end on Saturday. Thanks for giving up your day to help make ours so special.

Thanks also to Race Director Karen Donoghue and to the RD’s assistant George Reid. It really was the perfect day, from the family like atmosphere at the Spittal of Glenshee hotel all weekend, through to the race itself, including the perfect weather for running, and, finally, through to the prize giving ceremony at the end where each finisher received their quaich.

The race itself was quite daunting. Despite having completed it the previous year, there were certain bits of the course that had somehow filled me with dread, including some particularly boggy sections that, certainly last year, felt like they were never ending. With a small field of runners, there was also the possibility of getting lost and I really did ‘try’ my best to do this, especially in the first 6 miles. As one of the marshals said, you really do need to “look aboot ye”!

The other aspect that was quite daunting was the relatively close proximity to the 95 mile West Highland Way Race, now less than 5 weeks away. Anything less than a finish on Saturday would have been a bit of a psychological blow as it was the last race in my build up to the WHW Race and was a key training component in terms of a last really long run.

As it was, it was a really positive day for me but with a single niggle.

Getting the niggle out of the way – The first 6 miles contained some pretty muddy, boggy terrain. Hardly surprising given the weather of late and, to be honest, it was a relief not to arrive in Glenshee to snow covered mountains. Somewhere in those first 6 miles some gloopy mud grabbed my right foot and refused to let go without a fight, causing me to over extend somewhat. The back of my ankle is red and swollen, as I found when I removed my shoe back at the hotel. Throughout the day, it resulted in a sharp stabbing pain on both the uphill and flat sections. Regardless (definitely stubbornly and possibly stupidly) I was determined to push on and I spent the next 49 miles approx. nursing the ankle to the end.

The real success story of the day for me was my nutrition and hydration. A number of runners have been advocating the natural food approach to ultrarunning, especially for those of us about to tackle the 95 miles of the West Highland Way. The thought of relying on gels for 95 miles turns my stomach just thinking about it and, following the Fling, where I barely touched a gel for the whole race, I set out with no gels whatsoever, replacing them with ‘real food’. The Slimfast cafe latte shakes, mini cans of Coca Cola and pots of Muller Rice that had worked so well at the Fling were also in my drop bags for the Cateran but were joined by McVities Jamaica Ginger Cake and cheese & onion sandwiches. I also took a slightly different approach at the checkpoints, downing the Coca Cola and Slimfast and eating the Muller Rice but opting to carry the rest of the food, nibbling at the sandwiches and Ginger Cake on steep uphill sections. Overall, I found that my energy levels were much more consistent throughout the race and I didn’t suffer quite as many lows as usual, even with the dodgy ankle slowing things down!

If you have ever googled for ultrarunning nutrition advice or read Christopher McDougall’s book Born To Run, you may have come across the following definition of an ultramarathon from Sunny Blende, MS, Sports Nutritionist:

“An eating and drinking contest, with a little exercise and scenery thrown in.”

That definitely sums up my day and, following the success of the approach, will also be my strategy for the West Highland Way Race. I have already started compiling a food list for my crew which includes all of the above but also things like tomato soup, porridge, pasta and baked potatoes. Without a doubt, this will look more like a weekly shopping list by the time the race comes around!

I met up with many familiar faces this weekend and spoke with quite a few new ones who all helped to take my mind off my ankle and keep me heading forward. One in particular, Angus, was determined to see me up and over the final hill at the end with as little slacking off as possible and, for that, I thank you. I am sure you could have shot off to the finish as you were looking so fresh. Thanks for sticking around to give me company over the hill and down to the finish line – it was much appreciated.

I finished the race in 12.27, a new PB by 38 minutes and an improvement on my 12:36 from the Fling. With an extra 2 miles, same ascent but slightly less technical terrain, the 2 races generally give comparable times and, last year, I was 2 minutes over my Fling time.

The sections that I had dreaded passed without incident and, looking back, actually passed far quicker this year. It probably does help knowing that you are in fact going the right way and are not totally lost (suspected this at a couple of points last year as the terrain was so boggy!).

I had a surprise visit from Mrs Mac at the Blairgowrie checkpoint (31 miles) which was an unexpected boost. We had a leisurely journey home the following day, following a hearty breakfast at the Spittal of Glenshee and stopped off in Braemar to climb Creag Choinnich which helped loosen off the muscles a bit.

So, that’s The Cateran Trail Ultramarathon for 2012 done and dusted. From 75 who signed up, 65 made the start line and 54 finished.

The countdown to The West Highland Way Race has now begun!